Before Connor McDavid’s three-point performance on Oct. 17 against Calgary, he was struggling to find his game.
Considered by many hockey observers a generational draft pick, McDavid was largely invisible in his first four NHL games. OK, maybe not invisible. After all, given the hype over this promising 18-year-old, he was hard to miss. Fans and media naturally looked for him whenever he took to the ice. In his first four games, the 18-year-old saw plenty of playing time (over 18 minutes per game) centering the second line, with seven shots, three hits and three blocked shots.
Unfortunately, none of his vaunted offense was on display in those games. McDavid scored his first NHL goal in his third game, tipping in an Andrej Sekera shot against the Dallas Stars in a 4-2 loss. But before his two-goal, one-assist outburst against the Flames, he really didn’t do anything of consequence.
Other than some folks trolling Oilers fans about McDavid’s early struggles on social media, no one seriously floated the notion of McDavid as a first-round bust. At this point, most observers chalk up his early-October difficulties on adjusting to his new team and playing at the NHL level.
Of course, it’s still very early in the season. McDavid’s three-point effort against the Flames could signal a significant improvement in his performance. Perhaps he’s just shaking out the nervousness of playing up to the enormous hype that’s been building over him during the last two years.
When this season ends, McDavid could be sitting atop the rookie scoring lead by a wide margin. He might become the runaway favorite to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, his October struggles largely forgotten.
Then again, perhaps McDavid finishes well behind the leading rookie scorers. Maybe he ends up in the middle of the pack, showing potential of what he might eventually become with more experience and maturity. If so, McDavid wouldn’t be the first highly touted first-overall draft pick to stumble out of the gate in his NHL career.
Montreal Canadiens legend Guy Lafleur, the top pick in the 1971 NHL draft, had three straight 20-goal seasons before blossoming into the six-time 50-goal scoring machine who powered the Habs of the late-1970s into a four-championship dynasty, while blazing his path to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton (first overall in 1997) managed a meagre 7 points in 55 games during his 1997-98 rookie campaign with the Boston Bruins. He went on to become one of the best playmakers in NHL history, winning the Art Ross and Hart trophies in 2006.
Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos struggled through the first half of his rookie season until a coaching change and placement alongside winger Martin St. Louis sparked a significant turnaround in his performance. Today, he’s the Lightning captain, a two-time winner of the Richard Trophy and one of the league’s leading goalscorers.
Vincent Lecavalier was considered a franchise player when drafted by the Lightning in 1998, but netted only 28 points as a rookie. While Lecavalier’s best years are now behind him, he became a notable offensive center during his years in Tampa Bay, winning the Richard Trophy in 2007 and helping the Lightning win the Stanley Cup in 2004.
That will be cold comfort for long-suffering Oilers fans if McDavid goes through similar rookie struggles. They’re expecting him to be a transformational superstar, to have an immediate impact like Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alexander Ovechkin with the Washington Capitals.
Perhaps McDavid’s early-October woes wouldn’t have generated as much attention if he played on a club with a deeper roster.
Thornton, in his rookie season, played on a Bruins team that carried future Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque, veterans Dmitry Khristich, Byron Dafoe and Steve Heinze, along with rising young players like Jason Allison, Sergei Samsonov (the NHL rookie of the year in 1998) and Anson Carter. Their performances carried the Bruins back to the playoffs, offsetting Thornton’s disappointing campaign.
Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad for McDavid if he were in a less-fanatical hockey market. Lecavalier made his debut with a Tampa Bay Lightning team that certainly wasn’t as talented as it later became. The Bolts of that period were still more of a curiosity, considered little more than a league doormat. While Lightning fans were undoubtedly disappointed in Lecavalier’s mediocre debut, it didn’t resonate nearly as much around the league.
Sadly, however, McDavid is skating for a long-moribund team in a demanding market in a hockey-mad country where he’s been hyped as “The Next One.” Every missed scoring chance, every shift where he fails to generate an offensive opportunity, every game where he isn’t a notable factor will be intensely scrutinized. The less frequently he appears on the score sheet, the more pressure he’ll face to achieve his much-anticipated breakout.
Putting an additional burden on McDavid is the performance of the player selected right behind him in this year’s draft. Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel only had two goals in his first four games, but both were highlight worthy, with his first coming in his first game. Given how the NHL universe hyped up a rivalry between these two, comparisons with Eichel will only place an unnecessary and unwanted distraction upon McDavid as he tries to adjust to the NHL pace.
Whatever happens to McDavid this season, his early struggles reminds us that promising prospects don’t develop at the same pace. Some, like Lemieux, Lindros, Ovechkin, Crosby and Malkin, adapted quickly to the big league. Others (Lafleur, Thornton, Lecavalier and Stamkos) needed more time. It’ll take the course of this season to determine which category McDavid falls into.